Despite the apparent collapse of a governing middle ground, politicians and political scientists believe there are reforms that could re-center the nation’s deliberative process.
“I don’t think it’s irreversible,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “There are some things you can do to push the pendulum back a little bit.”
Here are six of the most common recommendations:
• Filibuster reform. The once-rare Senate rule allowing unlimited debate has morphed into a requirement of 60 votes to even begin debate on almost any legislation. Filibusters don’t help find bipartisan agreement, write political scientists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson. Instead, they “routinely thwart” compromise.
Several groups have suggested changing the rule, allowing a simple majority vote for some matters — nominations, for example — while requiring supermajorities for important budget and spending issues.
At minimum, reformers said, filibustering senators should be required to physically hold the floor — think Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Under current rules, filibusters are threatened but rarely executed, tying the body in knots with minimal effort.
The filibuster does have some support — it protects the right of the minority to be heard. Democrats passed much of the Affordable Care Act under a simple majority rule known as reconciliation, infuriating Republicans who thought major legislation should be more bipartisan.
• Redistricting reform. Too many states use the chance to draw new House districts every 10 years as an excuse to protect incumbents from serious challengers, and to ensure the majority party controls House seats. Unchallenged incumbents have little reason to compromise.
“When legislators draw district lines to prioritize incumbent and partisan interests, voters lose,” Common Cause, a government ethics group, has written. “Election outcomes are rigged and voters have little voice in choosing our representatives.”
When a federal court redrew the lines in Kansas this year — after the Legislature failed at the task — dozens of new candidates entered races, giving voters a wider choice of representation. One option: Independent redistricting commissions.
“It is no cure-all (none of these solutions is), but such an effort could contain and possibly reduce our escalating partisanship,” write political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann.
• Campaign finance reform. The need to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to run for the House, or millions for a Senate campaign, can deter even the most enthusiastic candidate.
“These poor members of Congress are torn a thousand ways to Sunday,” said Dan Glickman, former Agriculture secretary and once a member of the House. “They say they hate fundraising but they all do it; they say they hate the system but they all participate in it.”
Some have suggested public financing of campaigns to remove that influence, although that has met with serious resistance. Spending limits run into problems with the Supreme Court.
“The solution to these problems is so complex, and every time you offer one it bumps up against the First Amendment,” Democratic consultant Richard Martin acknowledged.
• Calendar reforms. Members of the House and Senate almost never meet self-imposed deadlines while traveling extensively between their home states and districts and Washington.
Most state lawmakers, by contrast, must accomplish specific tasks before adjourning. Congress could take a similar approach, with lawmakers not getting paid if they fail to pass specific items — such as a budget.
“If Congress can’t make spending and budget decisions on time, they shouldn’t get paid on time either,” stated No Labels, an interest group working for third-party involvement in national politics. “Congress spends first and asks questions later when it should instead be spending only after figuring out what goals it’s trying to achieve.”
Other groups go further. Congress should spend most of its time at home, they contend, casting ballots by Internet connection.
• Term limits. Experience with limiting the time a politician can serve has shown mixed results, but some groups argue that removing the incentive for a political career might bring better perspectives into Congress.
“Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career,” according to supporters of the Congressional Reform Act of 2012. “The founding fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.”
Actually, the writers of the Constitution considered but did not implement legislative term limits. And opponents noted that reducing terms might actually encourage more polarization from members, who would have less incentive to compromise.
• Voting reforms. Open primaries, second-choice voting, early voting, weekend voting and universal suffrage are all possible ways to encourage more participation by the public. Turnout in the recent Kansas and Missouri primaries was only 20 percent to 25 percent.
Some think proportional representation by district might help moderate Congress. Under the current winner-take-all approach, supporters of the losing minority have little reflection of their views.
In Kansas, for example, 41 percent of voters supported Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. Yet, all six members of the state’s congressional delegation are Republicans, effectively disenfranchising the state’s Democrats in Washington.
“In a representative democracy, the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right to representation belongs to all,” writes a group called FairVote, a group lobbying for an overhaul of the nation’s election systems.
Still others call for abolition of the Electoral College, which tends to focus presidential campaigns on a handful of swing states.